When Claire and Pann Lim floated the idea of starting a magazine with their two children back in 2013, their daughter, Aira, then 6, was bewildered. “Who’s going to want to read a magazine about our family?” she asked. Close to a decade later, the Singapore-based Rubbish famzine (think “family” plus “zine”) has just released Blood Sweat and Tears—a compilation of ten years as an art collective—and there is no sign of the famzine retiring any time soon. In fact, the Lim family already has ideas for the next two issues. “I’ve obviously been proven wrong,” Aira, who turns 16 in July, said with a laugh.
Rubbish can loosely be described as a family scrapbook, complete with film photography, heartwarming stories, and endearing illustrations pegged to a theme determined during a family brainstorming session, a.k.a. time spent “talking rubbish.” Fixed at a 5.9 x 7.9 inch format and a consistent typeface (about which Pann said with a laugh, “it is not easy to use the same typeface for ten years”), everything else design-wise is up for play, from thickness to paper stock to the addition of things like a cassette tape with an original single. The final product is always assembled through a laborious process, whether packaging the magazine into a Chinese takeout box or pressing 600 wildflowers between its pages. “I always complain about the process of putting the books together because it is so tedious but it makes me feel good when I see them completed,” said big brother Renn, who is currently 18 years old.
Yet the final product is nowhere near as kitsch or gimmicky as it might sound. After all, the project is partly helmed by Pann who, other than being a father, is the esteemed co-founder and creative director of independent agency Kinetic Singapore. Often regarded as a mentor at work, one night he asked his wife Claire, “why am I not sharing my knowledge at home, with my children?” This question sparked a conversation about starting a family art collective, which they would go on to form in 2011 under the name holycrap (‘crap’ is an anagram of each family member’s initials). The endeavor stemmed from a place of guilt, not a nepotistic desire to give his children a “leg up” in the industry as naysayers might suggest. There was never any intention for the children to become artists eventually either. “Some families play sports, some cook together. For us, it happens to be art-making,” said Claire.
Incidentally, Renn, who no doubt grew up in an artistic environment, developed a penchant for drawing as a child. He made many art pieces that Claire, as mothers do, began collecting, leading in 2011 to Renn by Renn Lim, holycrap’s first exhibition. This was preceded by bLAh bLAh bLAh in 2012, which included artworks by Aira, who was so inspired by her brother after his first show that she wanted to be part of an exhibition, too. “At first, we told her no because she was too young and had problems focusing for more than five minutes. But when she set her mind to it, we found her spending hours making art next to her brother,” said Claire.
While the intention behind the exhibitions was simple — to inspire more children to create art (none of the works were put up for sale) — the couple still approached them with trepidation. “The last thing I wanted was for people to say, ‘this guy thinks very highly of his kids’ work.’ We had to be as unbiased as possible,” said Pann. A lot of artworks scrawled by Renn and Aira would never even be chosen for exhibit in the first place — a stringent approach adopted by the parents that would continue over the years. When asked how they navigated their children’s feelings of rejection, which could have been detrimental, Claire replied, “we were honest but never brutal. Sometimes, they would even stand up for their work.” Pann added: “They needed to know that not every artwork that they create will be good.” Through holycrap, Pann and Claire had been able to impart life values such as discipline and resilience to their children.
The first Rubbish famzine, ‘GOOGLE TRANSLATING TOKYOTO,’ came into fruition in 2013 after a 13-day family trip to Japan, where the children shot roughly 103 rolls of film. Excited by his children’s eye for photography, Pann felt that it would be a waste if the images were simply archived and forgotten. That, quite simply, is how Rubbish famzine first came about. The inception was more organic than intentional, a heartfelt and spontaneous approach mirrored in the following issues. Holycrap’s 2014 sophomore zine, ‘Till Death Do Us Apart,’ was dedicated to the 50th wedding anniversary of Claire’s parents, while 2016’s issue five, ‘In the Name of the Father’ was an untold eulogy for Pann’s late father who the children never met. The act of putting the famzines together is not unlike how a family might compile memories into photo albums or blogs for remembrance — except this process is one with high production value, borne of the couple’s shared love for design and print.
According to Pann, the content of the famzines has revolved around mundane, everyday family things that the whole family consents to publishing — nothing that would intrude on the children’s privacy. Issue seven, ‘Flash and Blood,’ produced in 2017 when the kids were 14 and 11, was an exception, because they had something personal they wanted to openly discuss. In a section titled ‘ScolioSIS,’ Renn documented his sister’s experience with scoliosis. “It took Aira some time to accept it but it stopped bothering her after a while, so we asked if she wanted to talk about it in the zine,” said Claire, who had been disillusioned by the looks they were given at the hospital when Aira wore her brace over her clothes rather than hidden underneath, which is the norm. “If adults treat it like something that is meant to be hidden, it makes it worse for children,” she added, hoping that by sharing their experiences, other families going through something similar can feel less alienated in their struggles.
When asked if they have ever felt a need to develop their own personal narratives, one separate from their self-publicized family story, Renn said, “people see me as part of my family but I don’t feel the need to create my own ‘image.’ I usually live in the moment and right now, I don’t mind being seen as part of my family.” To which Aira added, “there isn’t a big difference. I’m perfectly comfortable being who I am with my family and perhaps being someone a little different in school.”
Lately, the children have entered new phases in life: Aira is currently studying for her ‘O’ levels (which is equivalent to a US high school diploma) while Renn is pursuing a diploma in sports science. “Doing art takes time,” said Renn, who added, “but I don’t regret anything. I think that the journey has been worthwhile but it might slow down for me now.” With this in mind, the last three issues were created in a way where the children were seen as “contributors,” and no longer editors.
Pann and Claire recognize that it is natural for young adults to start spending less time with their parents. Despite that, they hope to continue working on the famzine together. “The end game behind this is the hope that the kids will be left with volumes of over-designed diaries that they can look at when we are no longer around,” said Pann. “In the end, we are an audience of four. As long as we still enjoy the process, we will keep working hard.” To which Aira added, “I want to do more art in the future. I’d keep going. I don’t want to stop.”